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Classroom storytellers

There is always more than one way to tell a tale.

First-person. How-to. Rhyme. Journalistic. Haiku. (Just to name a few.)

The method you choose can work with a lesson plan in different ways, as participants found out at the 12th Red Clay Writing Project Summer Institute, which took place during the first three weeks of June at the University of Georgia College of Education. Made up of educators from across the state, participants spent three weeks exploring their own writing, experimenting with new styles and sharing their classroom successes and struggles.

The annual summer workshop is a chance for teachers, media specialists and other educators to focus on the craft of writing, with the idea that in order to teach writing, you must first be a writer.

Along with the soul-searching that comes with such an inward-facing craft, the three-week workshop was also a chance for teachers to explore their triumphs and difficulties in the classroom. Here, coming from a diverse group of schools, they could share lessons incorporating writing that inspired students—or not. Here, among newfound friends and colleagues, they could fine-tune ideas into full lessons.

Take a lesson created by Katie Baker Johnson, a teacher at Cedar Shoals High School in Athens. She showed her students a map of Athens defined not by streets or property lines, but by words describing different areas. Yet her students didn't identify with any of these places—and in some cases, their neighborhoods were completely overlooked. Their Athens, they decided, would read differently.

So, they set out to make their own version, using writings and poetry to define their own special places.

"How do we let our students' voices be heard?" asked Johnson. "In all places, how do we give students a space to use their voice, and how do we challenge the obstacles."

In this case, one of the obstacles was taking this lesson plan and adapting it to a more rural school. Johnson's colleague, Ashley Goodrich, said one of her goals during Red Clay was to learn new ways to help students be agents of change in their communities.

Literacy in any medium gives students a voice, she said. And with tools to communicate their feelings and passions, it helps students become more engaged in their lessons—and their community.

"Our big question is, how do we create places for student agency?" she said, referring to the space where a student feels empowered to speak up.

Students feel passionately about current events just as adults do—for example, take the issue of undocumented students who want to attend an in-state school, or the events in Ferguson, Missouri. The trick is finding a way to harness these passions into creative expression.

That's one of several quandaries brought forward during the summer institute. Bob Fecho, professor and head of the Department of Language and Literacy Education who along with retired College of Education professor JoBeth Allen, founded the Red Clay Writing Project, said this problem-solving is one major aspect of the institute.

"It's teaching-learning exploration," he said. "Writing becomes the center of all this. So much of what we ask of teachers has to do with literacy. So the issues we are talking about use writing so it's more authentic."

A sense of structure

Participants in the summer institute get three credits for the experience, paid through a federal grant funneled through the National Writing Project. This national organization has sites in colleges and universities that serve teachers across all disciplines, and is one of the longest running and most effective professional development initiatives for teachers. Fecho co-directs Red Clay with College of Education professor Stephanie Jones and Eric Hasty, a doctoral program graduate and teacher at East Jackson Middle School.

The days are busy—8:30 a.m.-4 p.m., with a break for lunch and personal writing. Facilitators Jan Burkins, an Athens-area educational consultant, and Margaret Robbins, a graduate student in the department, along with guest speakers, talk about different forms of writing, their inspirations and classroom strategies. And along with working on their own writing projects, participants also bring their own questions, using the diverse group as a sounding board for lessons that worked or didn't.

"Part of the challenge is helping teachers feel confident in their own writing," said Fecho. "In order to be a great teacher of writing, you should write. We have some teachers who are comfortable teaching, but for them, writing is a struggle."

But with a mix of educators—you have first-grade teachers mingling with advanced high school English teachers—there is a certain kind of energy created during their three weeks together, Fecho said.

"It keeps me connected to the issues and concerns of schools," he added. "But also, a challenge is sharing your work with others and seeing the power of that."

Part of the community

One Friday afternoon, the group met near the iconic UGA arch for an afternoon of writing around Athens. They divided into groups and set out to get some lunch, people watch, and focus on their projects.

For some of the teachers in the group, the afternoon was a luxury. Often pulled in different directions and juggling family and classroom commitments, it was a solid afternoon of focusing your mind on the writing task at hand, and accomplishing it.

At the downtown Athens restaurant Ted's Most Best, one group sat under a shady portico, sipping sweet tea and chatting about using technology in their classrooms. But as soon as their lunch plates were cleared, the table grew silent, with each head bowed over a notebook, laptop or even a tablet.

"This course is so intense, and many of us haven't been able to focus on ourselves," said Kacy Tedder, a media specialist at Clarke Central. "I came in with an academic lens, and it's taught me to delve into myself more. I wasn't expecting so much emotion and camaraderie."

While some used the time to work on personal projects, others came with a goal to soak up as much of the writing instruction as they could, with plans to implement it in nontraditional ways.

For example, Dare Dukes, executive director of Deep Center in Savannah, arrived at the institute with a plan to create an entire creative writing program to tell the story of an entire neighborhood. The organization works to promote literacy in impoverished areas of the city.

The kids who attend Deep Center's free writing workshops use creative writing to tell stories about their community, said Dukes. More than 60 anthologies of student work detail life in often forgotten areas of Savannah.

"With our program, we hope to learn what's really going on in nuanced ways. We tell their stories, and by telling these stories, we teach others about the history of the city," said Dukes. "For us, (the institute) is about working with other experts to help us think outside the box and come up with solutions to challenges."

As they wrap up their personal projects and fine-tune their classroom ideas, Fecho said the Red Clay experience has likely changed them, personally, in the process. He understands—he participated in a similar workshop decades ago, which is why he started Red Clay. "I know how it changes people," he said.

"One of the most common responses is how the institute changes them as a teacher and as a writer," Fecho added. "It makes you part of a larger community of people who care about what goes on in classrooms."